One of those things that really bug me is to go to a church, pick up a bulletin to see what the pastor is preaching on this morning — and find a big blank space where the sermon title ought to be.
Now I know I shouldn’t be critical, because there are many reasons why a pastor might not list his sermon title. Perhaps he doesn’t give a title to his sermons; perhaps he feels the congregation wouldn’t appreciate knowing the title — maybe he feels they might walk out if they see the topic ahead of time! I’ve heard of pastors who say they give no sermon title because if they did, the devil could get hold of the sermon and twist it.
You know, there’s something in all those reasons ... yet the devil in me says the pastor simply doesn’t have a sermon title ready in time for the printing of the bulletin!
But on to better things. Have you ever wondered how your pastor prepares his sermons? I’ll share with you how I have gone about that labor and joy for more than 60 years. But first, let me say I marvel at the fact that for all those years I started over every Monday morning putting a sermon together, and always, always felt a thrill in that task.
Here’s how I do it. First, I have a notebook filled with sermon ideas. Anything I read, hear someone say, stumble over on the internet, become aware of in my devotional reading and prayers that strikes a chord for a sermon, I write in that notebook. I go back through it regularly, and I pluck the sermon idea that’s ripe.
I have enjoyed doing sermon series on Biblical characters, on prayer, on the Sermon on the Mount, preaching through a book of the Bible, that sort of thing. But a lot of my preaching is topical; that is, I may start from an incident in our time and take it back to a Biblical principle.
For instance, while traveling in Switzerland some years ago, I was struck by the inscriptions in the cemetery at Zermatt, the jumping-off place for those who try to climb the Matterhorn. The folks buried there who died on the mountain came from all over the world — “born in India, died on the Matterhorn”, three friends from Oxford University in England, a 17-year-old from New York — and on and on.
It struck me that the pearl merchant in Jesus’ parable about the pearl of great price was pulled to seek the pearl just like that! And so was born the sermon “The Pull of the Pearl.”
I take my idea, brainstorm it from Monday until about Wednesday, clarifying what I want to say, letting scripture, stories and illustrations float up to the surface of my mind. Then I turn to my Biblical commentaries and see what scholars and preachers through the years have had to say on this scripture. I never go to the commentaries first.
I always had the sermon title and text ready by Thursday for the secretary to put in the Sunday bulletin. On Friday — or, God forbid, on Saturday — I would sit down at the typewriter or the computer, and write out my sermon, word for word. This allowed me to choose my words carefully and to see what I was saying in print.
One important practice I have had through the years as I write the sermon — and I write it in a spoken style so it reads as a conversation — is to imagine a church member who I trust, one who is a mature Christian, saying what this sermon is saying. And I ask myself, “Is this scriptural? Is this helpful to this church at this time? Is this as clear as I can say this? Is this as forceful as I need to say this?” I have always used two words when possible rather than one long one! I figure if the kids can understand the sermon, then perhaps most of the adults can as well.
I then deliver the sermon without any notes, having gotten up early on Sunday morning for prayer, meditation and study of the manuscript. This lets me have a freedom to look the people in the eye. It helps to be able to see the manuscript, as I usually can, in my mind’s eye. And then, the sermon was available in printed form the following Sunday.
Well, that’s my approach to sermons.
Footnote: the raccoons at Rocky Comfort told me they couldn’t care less! But usually people stay awake. And, by the way, don’t use this article as a litmus test of your pastor’s preaching. He’s probably a better preacher anyway.